EASA2016: Anthropological legacies and human futures

Missing persons, unidentified bodies: addressing absences and negotiating identifications
Location U7-15
Date and Start Time 23 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Laura Huttunen (University of Tampere) email
  • Gerhild Perl (University of Bern) email

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Discussant Dr Maja Petrović-Šteger

Short Abstract

This panel addresses the issue of missing persons/ unidentified bodies in various empirical contexts. Claiming that death is rather a process than a moment we want to address the question how such confrontations with 'unusual' deaths are symbolically, socially, and politically negotiated.

Long Abstract

In past and present times, people have gone missing for various reasons. The 20th century - marked by great violence, wars, and genocides - produced large numbers of missing. Moreover, totalitarian governments use forced disappearances as a strategy for regulating populations through terror. The bodies of the disappeared are often buried in anonymous mass graves and their exhumation and identification is an on-going endeavor in the 21st century - a century itself marked by similar and new forms of disappearance: war, natural disaster, and life-threatening migration routes. Reviving Robert Hertz thought that death is rather a process than a moment we want to address post-mortem in/mobility and precarious futures of dead bodies. Following Hertz' argument that a person has to die socially, we also seek to discuss how people cope with the absence of a body and the uncertainty of the whereabouts of a missing person. We want to bring together papers addressing the absence of a dead person and/ or the presence of an unidentified dead body. How are such confrontations with 'unusual' deaths symbolically and politically negotiated? Which deaths are considered as grievable, which are not, - and by whom? How does the absence of a body affect the bereaved socially, genealogically, economically, and politically? These phenomena evoke several anthropologically important questions, some theoretical, others empirical and ethical. We invite paper proposals that address the issue of missing persons/ unidentified bodies in various empirical contexts, evoking anthropological legacies discussing kinship, religion, knowledge production, and power.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Displaced ancestors and recovery in the post-tsunami NE Japan

Author: Maja Veselič (University of Ljubljana)  email

Short Abstract

Focussing on the doubts and suspicions about the afterlife of the tsunami dead, this paper examines the relationship between the place, order and emotion in contemporary ancestor veneration in Japan.

Long Abstract

Nearly 20,000 people are believed to have perished in the tsunami and fires in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake on 11 March 2011. Over the following days and weeks, the sheer number of those who died and the damage to local funeral facilities and graveyards presented a challenge to the proper performance of elaborate mortuary and memorial rituals as bodies - often not yet identified or not yet claimed, had to be temporarily buried in mass graves or taken en masse to crematoriums hundreds of kilometres away. Often with little or no presence of Buddhist priests - the foremost ritual specialist for the care of the dead, this resulted in an anxiety about the efficacy of the process which was to enable the transition from the living to the ancestral spirit.

Drawing on the interviews with Buddhist priests in the tsunami stricken areas, this paper examines Japanese notions of the obligations to and interactions with the dead. By focussing specifically on the doubts and suspicions about the afterlife of those whose bodies continue to be missing or whose remains have not been identified as well as on the difficulties posed for the memorialization of pre-disaster dead by disrupted graves, vanished family altars and shattered mortuary tablets; and the way these were addressed by priests, I attempt to tease out the relationship between the place, order and emotion in contemporary ancestor veneration in Japan.

'Who has taken my son (amar cheleke ke nilo)?': comprehending state abductions, custodial death and disappearances in times of violence and conflict

Author: Atreyee Sen (University of Copenhagen)  email

Short Abstract

This paper traces the life of a missing persons file registered by Shanta, whose son disappeared in Calcutta, a city in eastern India, during the peak of a revolutionary uprising in 1974. I explore women’s encounters with state kidnappings and illegal deaths in regions marked by guerilla movements.

Long Abstract

This paper explores women's encounters with state kidnappings, custodial death and disappearances, and the sudden absence of politicized youth that often characterize regions marked by guerilla movements. I trace the life of a police file -- a missing persons complaint registered by Shanta, whose young son disappeared in Calcutta, a city in eastern India, during a revolutionary uprising in 1974. This paper shows how the expressive nature of Shanta's loss was molded by her agonizing and affective relationship with the tattered file; the latter became her 'appendage' as she staggered around the city for the next forty years seeking answers from the police, former revolutionaries, politicians, influential families and her neighbours. 'Who has taken my son (amar cheleke ke nilo)?' remained her question to a modernizing urban society gradually erasing its history of violence. The anthropology of violence highlights the role of collective action by mothers who have lost their children to state atrocities in South Asia. For example, de Alwis (2008) highlights the authenticity in maternal grief through the lens of the Mother's Front, which comprised of women protesting the abduction of young men during the civil war in Sri Lanka. My paper makes a contribution towards this anthropological literature on death, disappearance and conflict. Instead of exploring the experiences of women through conventional frameworks of trauma and suffering, I narrativise the invisible, individual journeys of women whose complex relationships with material cultures (related to their loss) enlivened memories of injustice, but eventually led to their social death.

Long-distance mourning: the impact of the missing on the Bosnian diaspora communities

Author: Hariz Halilovich (Australia)  email

Short Abstract

The paper discusses the impact of people missing from the 1992-95 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina on the trans-local relationships between diaspora and origin communities. In particular, the paper explores the effects and affects of the missing on the bereaved across time and globally extended space.

Long Abstract

This paper discusses the impact of people missing from the 1992-95 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina on the trans-local relationships between diaspora and origin communities. In particular, the paper explores the social and cultural legacies of the missing on the bereaved by examining how those still living mediate their mourning, and the consequences thereof, across time and globally extended space.

At the end of the Bosnian War, in addition to more than 100,000 killed, close to 40,000 individuals remained missing, almost 9,000 of whom have still not been found or identified. The war also resulted in a displacement of some 2,5 million people, out of which more than a million settled in Western Europe, Scandinavia, Northern America and Australia, forming a worldwide network of the Bosnian diaspora. Many of the migrants often lost close family members, who in many cases remained—or still remain—unaccounted for. More than two decades later, for many members of the Bosnian diaspora what is depicted as an 'unresolved past' is in fact an unresolved present, spreading across both time and space. The memory of the missing in is kept alive and performed through symbolic home memorials and religious and non-religious commemorations coinciding with similar events taking place in Bosnia (e.g. 11 July, 31 May, and 20 July). By describing these performative enactments of memory in diaspora, the paper will discuss the concepts of 'liminal entrapment'—describing open-ended temporality of the missing—and 'trans-local mourning' practices, increasingly synchronized and mediated through digital technologies.

Burdensome absences, disquieting remains: following the trails of the Civil War missing in Spain

Author: Zahira Araguete-Toribio (University of Geneva)  email

Short Abstract

This paper considers how the process of exhuming the human remains of those killed during the Spanish Civil War reveals enduring histories of absence in private and social realms.

Long Abstract

This paper will focus on the encounter between the unidentified corpses and objects, the documents and images associated to the Spanish Civil War dead, and those who come in touch with them during exhumation processes. Since 2000, Spanish groups of activists and families have led the search for the human remains of those killed by Franco's military and followers during the war (1936-1939) and after. With little acknowledgement from the state or the judiciary, these excavations have placed the bodies of the left-wing Republican missing at the heart of forensic scrutiny, media dissemination, social campaigning, and political and historical debate. Absent from official archives and the lives of some kin for over seventy years, these bodies activated unresolved stories of grief that had remained concealed in transgenerational acts of transfer.

In this paper, I will examine how exhumations elicit and present the disruptive force that absences have had on intimate constructions of the self, family histories and community relations in different ethnographic settings. Following Hertz' and others' insights into customary burial and mourning (e.g. Seremetakis 1991, Kwon 2006), my paper considers how these "undignified deaths" - as they are often recalled - have placed the living in a constant state of anxiety over the uncertain fates of those killed over the years. Following these forensic artefacts into the realm of the public, I will also address how the current political and legal status quo evinces a distressed politics of memory that threatens to obscure, time and time again, their existence.

Death at Europe's border: burial practices and mourning across the Mediterranean Sea

Author: Valentina Zagaria (London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE))  email

Short Abstract

The Italian island of Lampedusa and the Tunisian coastal town of Zarzis exist within the EU's borderland, and so have to confront the presence of those who die trying to cross it. This paper will focus on how the inhabitants of these two locales conceive of themselves and of the state as a result.

Long Abstract

The European Union's border has in recent history developed into an extensive zone that encompasses seas and lands beyond what is commonly regarded as Europe's geographical perimeter. Both the Italian island of Lampedusa and the Tunisian coastal town of Zarzis exist within its borderland. The fact that the Strait of Sicily is a maritime frontier means that the residents of its shores are directly involved in border practices, and have to confront the presence of those who die trying to cross it. This paper will explore how the inhabitants of these two locales conceive of themselves and of the state as a result of the deaths of people on the move. By focusing on local lived experiences, I hope to attain a deeper understanding of the consequences of European migration policies, laws, and state discourses. In Lampedusa and Zarzis respectively, how is death understood? How do individuals, communities and states decide on who and how to bury, and who and how to mourn? What affective resonances do the graves of unknown migrants transmit? How do the presences and absences of unknown persons and loved ones affect people's understandings of the state and of themselves as political actors? What moral discourses are invoked and challenged as a result? In sum, how and why do people in Lampedusa and Zarzis mobilise around the issue of border deaths?

The dead guerillero: CSI between war and peace

Author: Finn Stepputat (Danish institute for international studies (DIIS))  email

Short Abstract

This paper analyses how civil and military, local, national and international perspectives and interests meet in the performance of a crime scene investigation of an unidentified, dead guerrilla fighter towards the end of the Guatemalan civil war

Long Abstract

Rather than analysing a case of a missing person from the point of view of the relatives left behind, this paper looks into an extended encounter with the unidentified body of an (assumed) guerrilla-fighter who was shot dead by the army in 1995, towards the end of the 30 years long civil war in Guatemala. The paper gives an ethnographic account of the encounter in which local, civilian authorities negotiate their way through the formal 'crime scene investigation' in the presence of military officers, international human rights observers and local onlookers. The analysis traces the diverse perspectives and interests that permeate the performance of this state ritual, which achieves its particular significance due to the context of ongoing peace negotiations and the attempt to demonstrate the end of a non-declared state-of-exception. The suggestion that the management of dead bodies is intimately associated with performative claims to sovereignty (Stepputat 2014) will function as a theoretical backdrop to the analysis of the CSI.

The commodification of human remains: the case of forensic investigations in Guatemala and El Salvador

Authors: Julio Ajin Mutz (University of San Carlos of Guatemala)  email
Ariana Ninel Pleitez Quiñonez (National Museum of Anthropology in El Salvador)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the notion of commodification in the context of forensic anthropological investigations in Guatemala and El Salvador, through the linking of economic incentives and the "appropriation" and "(de)appropriation" of unidentified bodies by local community members.

Long Abstract

In 2011 a forensic anthropological investigation was conducted with indigenous families in Guatemala, who declared themselves relatives of unidentified skeletal remains found in mass graves. Further investigations carried out by the Guatemalan Forensic Team demonstrated the contradiction between families' testimonies and the patterns of injuries sustained by these bodies.

The evidence concluded that the unidentified bodies showed signs of been diseased in circumstances outside the framework of the Guatemalan civil war, such as postmortem examinations in the skull or contemporary clothing contradicting families testimonies. The petition for exhumations were initiated by "family members" in relation to compensation policies, arguably that these remains could have been taken from neighboring cemeteries or 'collected' to obtain economic benefits.

In the case of El Salvador, it was the exhumation of the remains of a woman killed during the war, but no skeletal remains were found, which put the family and justices to doubt about the effort of having carried out the exhumation.

Departing from our work experience with the Guatemalan Forensic Team and other regional teams in El Salvador, this paper aims to analyze and reinterpret these cases through the working notion of commodification addressing human remains as "object value". As such, We seek to link the appropriation of unidentified skeletal remains to economical interests awarded by the (failed) compensation program promoted by the Guatemalan State shedding light into the role of unidentified bodies (and bones) into the social and economic context in which they are found.

Forensic anthropological endeavors, missing persons and the construction of genocide in Guatemala and Somaliland

Authors: Markus Hoehne (University of Leipzig)  email
Shakira Bedoya Sanchez (International Organization for Standardization (ISO))  email

Short Abstract

We discuss how missing persons have been utilized in forensic interventions for the construction of genocide cases in Guatemala and Somaliland. In both cases, forensic teams from Latin America are involved and the endeavors are a constant source of contestation, legitimation and resistance.

Long Abstract

Forensic investigations of mass graves have become a frequent occurrence globally. Three decades ago, a certain tradition of "forensic anthropology for human rights" was started in Latin America. It aimed to find the bodies of persons that have gone missing under various military regimes, taking pain to accommodate the needs of the victims (e.g., the families of the disappeared). In some cases, missing persons have been used by forensic investigations to research into patterns of violence over the years of dictatorship and to underpin criminal cases.

This papers looks into the way missing persons have been utilized in forensic interventions for the construction of genocide cases in two contexts: Guatemala and Somaliland (a secessionist Republic in northwestern Somalia). In both contexts forensic teams from Latin America are involved and the missing bodies are a constant source of political power, contestation, legitimation and resistance.

We argue that there is a fundamental difference between the inductive way in which forensic anthropology led to sustaining a genocide case in Guatemala, and the way the government in Somaliland seeks to build a genocide claim that is in line with its quest for recognition. Still, through the allegations of genocide, a relationship between both cases is established. Comparing both examples illuminates, how dependent the search for missing bodies and the dealing with dead bodies is on the political context in which forensic interventions take place.

Missing persons, forensics and posthumous rights: between Peru and Somaliland

Authors: Franco Mora (Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team)  email
Jose Baraybar (Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team (EPAF))  email

Short Abstract

Dwelling on the work of the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team in Peru and Somaliland, this paper explores the role of forensic anthropology in supporting the re-acquisition of the rights of the missing –the so-called posthumous rights- and the production of more fact-based memory.

Long Abstract

It is argued that the process under which persons become victims of forced disappearance is deliberately construed through abuses that culminate with death. Under this perspective victimhood is an acquired condition with prevalence among those whose rights as citizens were suppressed or hindered from the outset by various factors and in different contexts.

This paper explores the role of forensic anthropology in determining the whereabouts of missing persons from a holistic rather than from a purely discursive perspective. It addresses both the consequences as well as the causes of marginalization and exclusion that made possible for those people to become victims in the first place. Two main subjects are discussed, one is the enforcement of so-called posthumous rights of the missing, or their right to be exhumed, identified and re-buried like humans even if the process by which they became victims was rather [in]human. We discuss how such process initiates a cycle of re-citizenizing or re-acquisition of the rights taken to transform him/her into a victim. The second subject relates to the role of forensic anthropology in the production of more fact-based memory promoting transactions between incontrovertible evidence and imagined facts that also assist in shaping local narratives and in certain contexts may promote a less contentious coexistence, en lieu of reconciliation.

In order to illustrate these arguments we dwell on the work of the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team (EPAF) in Peru and Somaliland.

Sublime bodies and mortal remains: the nameless dead in the culture of impunity in Cambodia

Author: Caroline Bennett (Victoria University of Wellington)  email

Short Abstract

Thousands of human remains from the Khmer Rouge regime are displayed across Cambodia. Put to work as material reminders of the violence and horror, their presentation is sublime: transcending imagination and open to narrative manipulation. This paper examines these manipulations.

Long Abstract

The remains of those killed during the Khmer Rouge regime have never been individually identified, and there is no push to do so. The care of those excavated has been subsumed to the state, who displays them across the country as reminders of the regime, and material markers of the violent past. Their conspicuous display works not to display the individuals lost, but to demonstrate the overwhelming violence and destruction wrought by the regime. In this the dead are useful not as named individuals, but as anonymous dead. Piled high in stacks that awe the viewer their sublime presentation transcends the imagination, and enables political manipulation of narratives of the regime that subsumes culpability to a small group of individuals, and removes from responsibility the many cadre who remain in positions of authority across the country. Although a state manouevre, this delegation of care for physical remains is not viewed negatively by most people, who care for the spirits of individual dead in the annual ritual cycle. The physical remains are both mortal and sublime, and perform both functions, both for the individuals they represent, and the state who harnesses this power. This paper will explore the tensions and amalgamations this offers in contemporary Cambodia.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.